This enforced period of what Washington Post literary critic Ron Charles calls “the Great Cessation’’ offers us procrastinators the free time, theoretically at least, to get around to things we always meant to get around to.
If you’re like me, that list prominently includes (ominous chords issue from pipe organ) . . . the Unread Books.
I’ve got more than a few of those on my conscience, and on my bookshelf. And when you’re quarantined, there’s no escaping the Unread Books, those unforgiving volumes of unkept New Year’s resolutions. They stare down accusingly as if to say: “What is your excuse now, pal?’’
Which is a roundabout way of confessing that I finally read “Stoner.’’ For half my life, people I respect have been telling me I needed to read this 1965 novel by John Williams. Now I respect them even more.
What a marvel of exquisitely restrained prose. What a remarkable book about an outwardly — but only outwardly — unremarkable man. What a fool I was to wait so long.
The only son of a farm family who is seemingly destined to till the soil himself, William Stoner unexpectedly diverges onto a scholar’s path after he discovers the transporting power of literature while a student at the University of Missouri. Stoner then goes on to teach English there from the 1920s to the mid-1950s.
Steady, stoic, doggedly decent, Stoner is stuck in an airless marriage to the unstable, passive-aggressive Edith. When Stoner builds a warm connection with Grace, their daughter, Edith promptly sets out to undermine it, reducing Stoner to a bit player in the household. In the years to come, that dissolution of the father-daughter bond will prove to have lasting consequences for Grace. Things aren’t much better at the university, where Stoner is the target of a decades-long, career-damaging vendetta by his department chairman.
But it is also at the university that genuine joy enters Stoner’s life, in the person of Catherine, a young instructor. The portrait of their love affair is deeply moving, largely because it is rendered by author Williams with not a single ounce of treacle.
Your heart sinks as the forces of the outside world begin to gather against Stoner and Catherine. (My heart also sank, by the way, when I heard that the novel is being made into a movie, starring Casey Affleck. The interiority so crucial to "Stoner'' will be very hard to translate to film.)
Throughout the novel, as Williams immerses us, fathoms deep, in Stoner’s inner life, a gap yawns wide between the outside world’s perception of Stoner and who he really is. Indeed, part of the novel’s wisdom is its reminder, quiet but unmistakable, that there’s no way to understand the truth of another person’s existence, much less its meaning.
For me, there was another, simpler takeaway from reading “Stoner’’: Gotta keep going on those Unread Books. Maybe it’s time to give “Ulysses’’ a try?